The more the Right gains in Europe, the deeper liberals go into denial, till it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where each feeds off its opposite impulse. This troublesome phenomenon is now an axiomatic truth, repeated again in Germany following Angela Merkel's return for the fourth time as German Chancellor amid a rancor of ethno-nationalism in Berlin.
The rise of the Right presents a unique challenge to the western liberal order from where it spreads out to the entire world, shaking the foundation of the model of governance on which modern democracies are built. And as western democracies grapple with nativist urges due to their inability to deal truthfully with crucial questions on race, identity, religion and terror, they become weak and vulnerable to authoritarian influence. Witness how Russia and China are rewriting the international rules-based order.
This, as Thorsten Benner warns us in Foreign Affairs, may ultimately "push the world towards illiberalism". It won't remain restricted to Europe.
It is imperative, therefore, to take the right lessons from the rise of neo-Nazis in Germany. Early signs have been disappointing. Most liberal commentary, on the face of mounting evidence, radiate an innocent optimism that the Far Right will eventually self-destruct and the world (not to speak of Europe) will return to post Cold War equilibrium.
On the face of it, Alternative for Germany's (AFD) march into the heart of German democracy coincides with the similar march of the Right-wing across Europe. It is tempting to place it within a larger context of European politics tipping to the Right and then dismissing it as a "passing fad".
Leonid Bershidsky, for instance, writes in Bloomberg that "identity-based parties like Germany's AFD are election losers", and concludes smugly that it is "another defeat for the Far Right, which appears to have hit its ceiling".
This is misleading. While they may not have managed to seize power yet, Far Right forces in Austria, Poland, Hungary, Sweden, France or The Netherlands have made significant recent gains. In Germany, they just broke fresh ground to emerge as the third-biggest political party.
Liberals interpret this trend as a non sequitur, contending that the core of Europe remains strong and avowedly centrist, and instead of an ideological shift, this tilt is merely an expression of dissatisfied voters speaking out against globalisation, melting of borders and red-tapism of the European Union project.
In reality, however, AFD's entry into the Bundestag (German Parliament) for the first time in half a century is a deeply troubling sign, no less significant because it concerns Germany, the European crown jewel that carries the Nazi millstone around its neck.
It is astonishing that the radical Right has managed to step out of the shadows again in a country which has, instead of burying its past, confronted and institutionalised the memory. "Every German school child," writes The Economist, "Must visit a concentration camp; as essential a part of the curriculum as learning to write or count. Streets and squares are named after resisters. Little brass squares in the pavements (Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones) contain the names and details of Holocaust victims who once lived at those addresses. Memorials dot the streets; plaques commemorating specific persecuted groups, boards listing the names of concentration camps… a giant field of grey pillars in central Berlin attesting to the Holocaust."
Germany has evidently adopted a culture of remembrance in daily life. Whereas nations dedicate monuments to remember its heroes or remind itself of horrors, Germany does so in an everyday way to insulate itself from a relapse.
Fred Kaplan elucidates further in Slate, "The city memorialises not its discarded leaders but rather their victims. Take the 'Topography of Terror', a museum built on the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters that fully documents the rise, reign, and fall of the Nazi regime. The Nazis were excellent at keeping records, and thousands of records are laid out here — official memos, photographs, newspapers, film reels, and more — to sear into the world's memory that these things really happened."
For such a country to give in to nativist impulses must have required an equally powerful stimulus, and in its consensus-driven, cloyingly sanctified politics and public discourse, German politicians and its media have provided just that — refusing to address real issues that concern real people.
In the public debates leading to Germany's election, there was little to differentiate in the sparring between Merkel and her chief challenger Martin Schulz and they could have nodded off without anyone even noticing it. Instead of pugnacious debates, there was consensus, leaving the Far Right to pick topics that worried the public. More than a million immigrants had been let inside Germany, introducing a tremendous disruption and social discord in German societies but neither were the politicians willing to talk about the troublesome questions of identity, rising crime graph or lack of integration, nor was the media interested in raising those questions. In an effort to show itself as the model of multiculturism amid a nativist storm, Germany tried to bury its differences. A steep price had to be paid.
Figures released in August by Germany's interior ministry showed an alarming rise in crime, perpetrated mostly by asylum seekers. Financial Times reported from Berlin, quoting official figures, that "some 174,000 immigrants from non-EU countries were suspected of carrying out crimes last year, a 52 percent increase on 2015", and statistics showed that "immigrants were responsible for 35 percent of cases of pickpocketing, 11 percent of home break-ins, and nearly 15 percent of cases of grievous bodily harm".
The report quoted the German interior minister as saying that when it came to violent crimes there were "about 90 percent more immigrant suspects in 2016" than in the previous year.
These statistics followed a survey in April by the Bertelsmann Foundation which found that a majority of Germans are wary of Merkel's refugee policy and believe that the country cannot afford to admit any more. It didn't help that some of the most violent crimes — such as an Afghan asylum-seeker hacking at five people on a train with an axe, a Syrian killing himself and injuring 15 in a suicide bomb attack, or a Tunisian plowing a truck into a crowd and killing 12 in Berlin — were associated with migrants.
While this was taking place, German politicians and mainstream media were obsessed with protecting the identities of perpetrators, fearful of a backlash against migrants. In their refusal, they ironically triggered that very impulse. It's not difficult to imagine the hesitation in German media in mentioning the ethnicities of criminals given its troublesome past but the more it tried to avoid it, the more it exposed itself to charges of lying, and clearly a lot of Germans were swayed by the Right.
As Deutsche Welle said in a report, faced with public pressure, the German press council had to eventually loosen its guidelines.
The sexual assault on revelers in Cologne on 2016 New Year's Day, where gangs of men of North African or Arabic appearances groped and robbed young women, triggered an astonishing response from the Cologne mayor who advised young women to stay at a safe distance from strangers, leading to more outrage. It was a classic case of politicians blaming the victims instead of perpetrators to avoid raising troubling questions related to immigrants.
The German public, not initially averse to letting in refugees, wanted the politicians to discuss the tough questions once the disruption set in. To quote from Jochen Bittner's piece in The New York Times, "How do you make sure that Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq or Northern Africa unambiguously accept values like religious tolerance, equal rights for women and the priority of earthly law over divine commandments? Can those who have a right to stay be integrated into the highly demanding German labor market? And can German authorities develop the thick skin it needs to deport hundreds of thousands of rejected asylum claimants?"
Neither the Christian Democrats nor its ally, the Social Democrats, were willing to raise these issues because it would have exposed Merkel's "open-door" policy to further scrutiny. This abdication of responsibility from Merkel and her allies left the Parliament door open for the neo-Nazis to barge in.
This carries a lesson for the liberal centrist core of Europe and elsewhere. Multiculturism and diversity cannot be an end unto themselves, they must lead to something — a better, more secure and prosperous life. When the means deviate from the end and try to become an end unto themselves, we are presented with a perverted paradigm where criminals are given a free pass and victims blamed because none wants to be called a bigot.
Voters see with dismay how their representatives (be it elected leaders or even the press) are failing to engage in honest conversations. This anger is reflected in the ballot. Whether or not the Far Right manage to entrench itself deeper into German society is a question for time to answer. This election result, however, should trigger a deeper introspection.
Updated Date: Sep 26, 2017 22:15:53 IST